All contract offers by NRL clubs to players must be lodged with Rugby League Central, as part of a proposed strategy to make players and their managers more accountable and combat salary cap cheating.
Half of the NRL’s 16 clubs have been investigated for salary cap rorts over the past decade, yet no player has been punished, while their agents have been given token sanctions and allowed to delegate their work to colleagues during their brief suspensions.
While the NRL boasts that its vigilance around salary cap auditing has resulted in the world’s most competitive football league, it is continually embarrassed by headlines, such as the recent revelation of the Sharks’ self-reported breach.
Clubs will be asked to provide headquarters with details of all offers to players with a view to comparing these offers with the one ultimately accepted by the player.
Should a player accept a significantly lesser offer, the NRL will examine the mitigating reasons why it was chosen in preference to a seemingly superior one.
Length of contract, comfort with the player’s current club, a high-quality coach, employment opportunities for a partner, family connections and living by the beach are all factors which may sway a player to decline a significantly richer reward for his services.
A major monetary gap between what one club offered and what the player accepted may point to illicit payments, such as cash, or undeclared third-party agreements.
The NRL will also insist all TPAs be approved by a club before being registered with headquarters.
While clubs are expected to be at arm’s length when TPAs are negotiated between agent and sponsor, the club has a right to protect its image.
In other words, a TPA with a sex shop or a gym frequented by bikies, may be rejected by the club, in the same way the NRL will not register a TPA which conflicts with one of its own business partners, such as Telstra.
Furthermore, the NRL is considering making all TPAs public, creating even more transparency around the contracting process, in the same way players’ salaries in overseas leagues are published in newspapers.
The NRL initiatives will seriously undermine the chicanery of player managers who rely on bluff to secure more money for their clients (and themselves) or facilitate salary cap rorting by encouraging clubs to breach the rules around TPAs.
An agent can still falsely assert to club X that club Y is offering his client $100,000 more because, presumably, League Central will keep the correct information confidential.
Some clubs trust each other sufficiently to check the supposed offer with another club but many do not.
With all offers tabled at NRL head office and some signings eventually questioned, both players and their agents will become more accountable. Furthermore, clubs will be less likely to succumb to agents’ pitches that “a $50,000 TPA will secure a player’s signature” in an environment of transparency.
While NRL clubs have been informed of the proposed strategy, player managers were not consulted. In fact, there is an increasing belief agents should be forced to sign off on TPAs, along with the player and sponsor. After all, some agents collect up to 25 per cent of TPAs.
There may be some opposition from the Rugby League Players Association to players’ TPAs being published but the high-value ones can act as an incentive to players to improve their image and win similar deals.
For example, the Storm top the NRL with $800,000 in registered TPAs but almost all of this is paid to captain Cameron Smith and fullback Billy Slater, who have impressive marketing profiles.
The NRL believes TPAs have been over-stated as the main vehicle of salary cap cheating.
Essentially, unethical behaviour by club officials, agents and players, is at the core of the problem, whether it is brown paper bags full of cash, payments to family members, gifts, club suppliers invoicing excess amounts which are channelled to players, or unregistered TPAs.
Significantly, an NRL club such as St George Illawarra has few TPAs. While some would argue the club channels all available sponsorships to itself and others falsely claim it must only deal in illicit ones, the reality is the Dragons would never compromise their image.
The NRL will continue to probe the self-reported breach at Cronulla in 2015, which it says is not of the magnitude of the rorts at Parramatta and Manly.
However, the illicit, or unregistered payments may involve more than just one player – Chris Heighington, who later transferred to Newcastle- and embrace more than just one year.
Roy Masters is a Sports Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.